Wednesday, March 19, 2008

trial balloon: experiences with blurb.com

I've been ruminating on a couple of book ideas; for SoFoBoMo and another in progress and wanted to try out blurb.com as the printer. They seemed like one of the few PoD companies that would do decent photographic prints while also being geared up to at least allow some resale. I have a notion of creating a teaching book that people could purchase and blurb.com might well be a good outlet. I can revise and update the book as I go along, releasing new versions and potentially if there is interest use it as an avenue in to showing a publisher. I've tried other PoD companies, such as lulu.com and was very disappointed in the print quality. I've actually seen blurb.com books in person at trade shows and was reasonably impressed. The booksmart client software that they provide is not terrible. I don't relish the idea of authoring a book with much text in it though - in terms of desktop publishing support it is pretty basic. I think I'll use Adobe InDesign for layouts, then just paste full-bleed pages into blurb for a final print version. However, for this sample, I took a simpler approach. One picture per page, full bleed with a black background for the remainder of the page. I picked a somewhat funky font, made it large and kept things simple. For the book, I picked the cheapest hardback sample that I could put together, 7" square book, with about 15 pages - you could do more pages for the same price - up to 20 for the cheapest book - then you start paying an incremental cost per page. As this was a trial, I thought that would be enough. I selected and edited the images in Lightroom then exported them to Photoshop for a final tweak and colour profiling. The one thing I have heard are lots of horror stories about bad colour from blurb and other PoD companies. I'd found a colour profile for their printer and picked a challenging image for the cover - bright, lime-green with magenta highlights. Perfect. I switched on the soft proof in Photoshop and the defaults looked terrible. Muddy sickly yellow. Anemic colour, flat highlights, muddy shadows. But with a bit of tweaking, some selective colour adjustments to move away from the real lime green to another apparently printable green and some additional contrast, things were looking much better. I went through the same process with all the images, doing some radical adjustments to the original image, just to get it back to close to how I wanted it in the soft proof. That always concerns me, but I thought I'd go along with it.
Assembling the book was straightforward in booksmart. I uploaded the final version after some previewing and bought a copy. Surprisingly, the book shipped only a couple of days later - I'd expected a longer lead time. The book arrived in decent packaging, quickly and without any problems. There I had it, a few days later, a book of my photos! First thing is to notice how fantastic it is to have a hardbacked book of your images. There's a certain thrill to that that is difficult to replicate with online displays or even individual prints, mounted and framed or not. I know all I did was pay some money, there's no real validation involved, but it sure looks good! I've put together a few books for different purposes and the feeling hasn't gone away yet. The second thing to note is that 28 sides (14 pages) isn't very many. You end up with quite a slim volume, particularly in hardback. All cover and no content, if you aren't careful. The slip cover looked great - particularly that green I'd been worried about translated very well, close to how it looked in the soft proof. I'm impressed with how similar it all turned out - throughout the book. On the other hand, I think if I'd uploaded straight, unadjusted sRGB versions of the files I would have been quite disappointed. Some of the original colours just wouldn't have worked out at all. Blurb doesn't make a big deal out of mentioning this - it is there on their site, but they certainly don't push colour management and soft proofing. Something to watch for. The print quality is certainly not as good as I can get from my inkjet (an Epson R800), but is certainly well above acceptable on most of the images. There is a slightly visible cross-hatching in the smoother areas of some images, if you look particularly closely, but from a normal viewing distance all of the images look great. Some of those that were slightly less sharp than others really become more noticeable on the printed page. Also higher ISO black and whites lost a lot of the presence and depth that they have online. They just don't translate too well, the noise becomes more noticeable, the contrast isn't as strong and they just don't have the same amount of life. The one disappointment for SoFoBoMo is that booksmart isn't a simple way to get a PDF of your book. At least, not without a large watermark through each page. using pdf995 I was able to get a final PDF of the book from booksmart, but the layout is not great and the watermark is very visible. Might do in a pinch, though. I also made one rookie mistake, putting something too close to the edge of the slip cover. The cropping is probably about a quarter of an inch tighter than the previews - certainly you are well warned about this but I almost lost an eye from the cover! This particular book has a bar code printed on the rear. From blurb's blog it appears that different printers and different books may or may not end up with this bar code. I've also read that all of the books larger than 7" are printed on a slightly better printer, so the quality should improve even over this quite acceptable start. The binding seems solid, the book feels like a real book. The pages appear to be glued and stitched into a cloth-backed hard cover. It all looks professionally put together, though a bit skinny. A 14 page book cost $22.95 for the 7" hardcover, plus $8 shipping. It is the same price, up to the first 40 sides. Note that blurb refer to pages as each side of one physical piece of paper being one page for the cost calculation. An additional $3 doubles the page count and the book would start to feel more substantial. White space is your friend. Overall I'm happy with the results and plan on using blurb for a final copy of my SoFoBoMo book.

7 comments:

milo said...

excellent information, Gordon ... thanks

Dominic said...

Gordon,

I'm considering doing my book printing through White House Custom Color - I have an account set up with them, if you want, I can print you a copy (for cost) so you can compare. For info on their book offering, go here.

Drop me a flickrmail with phone# or something if you want to chat more about it.

Dominic said...

I checked pricing real quick. All prices are incl 2-day shipping.

"basic" package (100#weight, non-hinged, non-coated paper):

8.5x11, 10 to 90 sides: $22
10x10, 10 to 90 sides: $35
11x14, 10 to 90 sides: $35

Christian Stalley said...

excellent, gordon, thanks very much for the information. this is exactly what i've been wondering about for a while.

Umesh said...

Actually, my experience with blurb has been good - not "horror" as you indicate in your post.

I have sold a few books so far, and have had a number of copies printed for myself as well. Every copy both soft and hard cover have exact colors as i expected - except for paper quality which i am not happy about.

-Umesh
http://www.8thcross.com/blog/

Sarah said...

thanks for getting in touch Gordon, this was all really really useful. i would like to order a copy of your book - it looks fab.

The Other Kelly said...

Thank you so much for documenting your experience with this. I'm gearing up to do basically the same thing... and hopefully I can figure all of this out, your blog definitely helps.